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Lessons from Leo

By Angelique Harris, Writing Fellow, Queens College, CUNY

I plagiarized a passage on Leonardo da Vinci that I found in an obscure encyclopedia series that my parents purchased when they found out my mother was pregnant with me. Although I knew all about Leonardo in high school, I wanted extra credit in my junior year art history class, so I copied a three-page biography on Leonardo and handed it in as my own. I never really thought about the incident as plagiarism. Cheating, yes, but plagiarism, no. In fact, I don¡¦t think I put that much thought into it; it was simply a clever way to get extra credit. On the other hand, I did know that it was "wrong," and that was the only time I have ever plagiarized anything. However, my perception of the incident has changed drastically since I have begun to teach.

Chances are that my admission of academic dishonesty while in high school is not particularly shocking (well, maybe it is in that I am a Writing Fellow, and am admitting to it in such a public forum). Schools anticipate that their students will cheat and plagiarize work. For example, there are hundreds of thousands of new websites and software dedicated to plagiarism and some of their goals are to help schools detect plagiarism among their students. However, when more ¡§prominent¡¨ people plagiarize, controversy always ensues. From Martin Luther King Jr.¡¦s dissertation and some of his speeches, to articles by Ruth Shalit of The New Republic, accusations of plagiarism have always lead to much debate. However, never is the concept of plagiarism and improper citation more disturbing than when the accused are among the upper echelons of the academy. Colleges, universities, publishers, etc., have placed so much focus on plagiarism in student work that ¡§professional intellectuals¡¨ often slip through the cracks and are rarely perceived as plagiarists themselves.

In October 2002, acclaimed historian Stephen Ambrose died. Ambrose was author of over 30 books and a retired history professor at the University of New Orleans. His celebrated book, Band of Brothers, was made into an award winning HBO mini-series. He also served as the history consultant for Steven Spielberg¡¦s Saving Private Ryan. Ambrose¡¦s work dealt with the American soldier and was written in a way that the layperson could read, understand, and appreciate. Ambrose was one of the most influential historians in the US. Unfortunately, towards the end of his life, his career was filled with accusations of plagiarism.

Ambrose was charged with plagiarism after it was discovered that his best seller, The Wild Blue, was filled with lines taken from Thomas Childers¡¦s work; though footnoted, the actual lines weren¡¦t quoted. Childers forgave Ambrose, who often wrote more than one book a year. For these reasons many believed that his plagiarism was a mere accident. However, Mark Lewis of (the same online journal that discovered The New Republic¡¦s Steven Glass¡¦s fabrication), discovered a number of cases of ¡§faulty citation¡¨ committed by Ambrose. Many of his books contained several sentences copied word for word without properly quoting his sources. Ultimately, these accusations didn¡¦t hurt Ambrose¡¦s career much, as he went on to publish other books before his death at the age of 66 from lung cancer. In fact, recently, plans were made to name a highway after him in Louisiana.

Plagiarism and citation within the academy raise more questions than answers. What example does Ambrose give to the academy concerning plagiarism and citation, especially noting the response to his plagiarism by the general public? Is it ok for professors or professional academics to simply say they forgot to cite something and all is forgiven? Do universities have different standards for students than they do for professors in terms of plagiarism, citation, and the ownership of knowledge? (Well, I don¡¦t know why I just asked that question because though it is not explicitly stated, they do. Check out the November 24, 2004, New York Times article entitled, ¡§When Plagiarism¡¦s Shadow Falls on Admired Scholars¡¨ by Sara Rimer. ) However, when you think about it, how often do professors display knowledge that is THEIR OWN to students anyway? It is acceptable for professors to take someone else¡¦s syllabus and pass it along to students as their own. They will use lecture notes from colleagues or from the publisher of the textbook being used, in addition to tests already made up. Thus, if professors utilize all of these tools, how much of the actual course is their own? Why do some professors do that? Well, the easy answer is to save time; they are too busy. What kind of example is this setting for students ? Yet, although that is acceptable to do, most professors wouldn¡¦t dream of taking someone else¡¦s words for their own for a piece that would be published. So, is it ok not to cite lecture notes if their content is considered common knowledge within a field? What if this common knowledge is taken word for word from the publishing company or a teaching assistant or a colleague?

When I was a high school student, copying the biography of Leonardo was unacceptable. However, would it have been acceptable if I copied that passage and read it in an art history course as part of my lecture notes? Before you decide, consider this: Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware had to give up his bid for a presidential nomination in 1988 amid allegations that he plagiarized portions of his speech (basically, a lecture). If that is the case, should professors let the students know that their lecture will be coming from McGraw-Hill? Where does the line surrounding plagiarism and citation get drawn, and does it simply depend on who crosses it?

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Volume 2, Fall 2004/Spring 2005 (Download pdf file, 958 KB)

From the Editors
Citation & Plagiarism: Some Thoughts
Some Observations on Quotation and Plagiarism
Plagio: A View of Plagiarism from Abroad
Lessons from Leo
Policing Plagiarism Online
Plagiarism, Property Rights, and Power